The conference, themed Higher Education: Gen Next, sought to explore the future of the sector in light of recent economic, industrial and technological change. However, global political events, particularly President Trump’s ascendency and Brexit, became a secondary theme throughout the two-day event.
“We are witnessing an historic moment that requires an historic response”
Keynote addresses and panels were dominated by how Australian higher education should respond to these events, why the country must try to avoid going down the same anti-migrant path, and how the industry might capitalise on perceptions that other countries are now closed.
“We are witnessing an historic moment that requires an historic response,” former US ambassador to Australia, Jeff Bleich, told delegates during his keynote address.
“The only antidote to the impulse to divide and exclude, to isolate, to create barriers, and to resist the future is… to rethink education to help address the things that ail our democracies.
“And we must put our best minds to work to offer a vision of the future in this new economy that works for everyone.”
He highlighted the importance of collaboration in higher education, urging: “There are things that no one has solved where we all need to pioneer together.”
And collaboration and research ties also play a regenerative role in former industrial areas struck by economic downturn, according to Antoine van Agtmael, economist and co-author of The Smartest Places on Earth.
Australia’s luck will eventually run out after being spared from recession for over 25 years, van Agtmael argued, but added that universities could soften the blow by transforming rustbelts into “brainbelts” through research and openness to share “brainpower”.
“If you don’t collaborate, you end up in protectionism – intellectual protectionism,” he warned delegates, adding that “world-class research” will attract more international students and further improve global research opportunities.
Bertil Andersson, president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, argued that Switzerland is a good example of what to expect if cross-national research collaboration were closed down.
Switzerland found itself on the outskirts of the EU’s education and research activities, after being kicked out of the Horizon 2020 research programme in response to the country passing a referendum limiting immigration of EU citizens to its borders
“The US and UK have long been drivers of internationalisation in academia. Will East Asia and the Asia Pacific be the drivers of the future?”
While it has since been readmitted to Horizon 2020, Andersson said Switzerland’s influence in global research had been significantly diminished and argued the UK and US may be similarly affected.
“The US and UK have long been drivers of internationalisation in academia. Will East Asia and the Asia Pacific be the drivers of the future?” he questioned.
Outbound mobility is an opportunity to build these critical global ties, noted Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors Conference.
“It is very, very important to send your students out, not just have students coming in,” he said, adding that German students, who have significantly higher rates of outbound mobility than other non-Asian countries, returned home with their worldview changed.
National diversity was also front and centre of the conference, with UA launching its Indigenous Strategy 2017-2020, which aims to grow the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled in university by 50% above the current growth rate of students and improve completion rates.
“Australia’s first peoples make enormous contributions to learning and research,” UA chief executive Belinda Robinson said in a statement.
“We hope this strategy will help universities to make the most of that contribution, lift Indigenous participation and celebrate Indigenous excellence.”
UA celebrated its 10th anniversary during its conference, which was held in Canberra from 1-2 March.